New York

Richard Prince

Barbara Gladstone Gallery

When Richard Prince exhibited a series of captioned cartoons from The New Yorker magazine several seasons ago, the gallery context rendered the class-bound codes on which they were predicated distracting enough to disarm them as jokes. We laughed not at the jokes themselves, but at the patrician mores that motivate and delimit them. Recently, Prince has turned to bawdier material: here he exhibited a series of common jokes silk-screened onto monochromatic canvases, along with several “gangs”—his own term for the photographic grouping he has favored for the past several seasons. Perhaps because the new jokes depend less on the protocols of a specified class, our attention turns from their ideological determination to the joke technique itself.

Standard lounge-act fare, the jokes make no special appeal to sophistication. Yet seeing them recontextualized in the gallery, we end up marveling at the complexity of the mechanisms by which they simultaneously tap and domesticate repressed contents. This is not to suggest that Prince proposes a rigorous typology of joke effects—a classification of the mechanisms of condensation and displacement by which a joke exceeds normative denotation. His presentation does, however, nudge the convention of the joke in the direction of “strangeness.” A canvas entitled Shot Salesman, 1988, simultaneously announces the joke format and short-circuits its promised return. It reads: “A traveling salesman broke down on a lonely road late at night in the middle of nowhere. He walked to the nearest farm and asked the farmer if he could stay the night. ‘No,‘ said the farmer and shot the salesman in the head with a shotgun.” If this counts as a joke at all, it‘s as a kind of “meta-joke” based on our preconceptions of how this standard joke-type functions. By replacing the modest transgression we expect with an inexplicable and definitive act of violence, the joke renders the viewer‘s reference points unstable. We ask ourselves if we get it; and if we do, do we get it the same way that others do? Several jokes in the exhibition take their own mechanisms as subject matter, though the rest are less opaque and rather funnier than this one. When another work (The Wrong Joke, 1988) wanders into the realm of unconventional (homosexual) desire, the protagonist gasps, “I‘m in the wrong joke.” The punch line simultaneously aborts a scenario that threatens to violate conventional mores and brings the taboo desire forth in the palatable form of a joke.

When Prince rephotographed the familiar Marlboro advertisements in the mid ‘70s, he initiated a new approach to found imagery; suddenly the modern technique of collage looked like an antique procedure. A click of the shutter endowed the familiar photographs of swarthy cowboys riding and roping with an eerie contingency, a fictional quality that belied their status as a direct impress of reality. Prince has exhibited a fascination with mass culture, particularly with the seamier side of American underclass experience, for some time. Yet in his recent photographic work—typologies of such low-life icons as biker girlfriends, cartoon heroes, and pornographic illustration—amazement gives way to the easily inverted estheticism that informs camp taste. The jokes, by contrast, because they depend upon complex linguistic techniques, frustrate easy mastery and come off as less smug.

Though the joke paintings are less profound in conception than the early rephotographs, they evince an analogous vertigo at the core of their mechanism. Alternately bemused and astonished with respect to the ingenious indirections by which we negotiate the “real,” Prince turns to the joke as a common linguistic technique that simultaneously sustains and violates the “reality” from which it speaks.

Jack Bankowsky